Missouri deer harvest follows regional trend

News from the region
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JEFFERSON CITY–Hunters checked 50,507 Deer during Missouri’s archery deer season, bringing the state’s overall deer harvest to 250,787. That number is down from the 10-year average of 293,056.

The archery deer harvest was the second-largest in Missouri’s history, reflecting the continued growth in popularity of bowhunting. Top archery deer harvest counties were Jefferson, with 1,205 deer checked, St. Louis with 1,130, and Franklin with 1,018.

Resource Scientist Jason Sumners says the overall decrease is in line with deer-harvest figures from other Midwestern states.

“Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota all reported decreases of 7 to 26 percent in their firearms deer harvests,” says Sumners. “The relative importance of the factors responsible for those decreases differs from state to state, but the history behind them is similar.”

The “history” Sumners mentioned relates to the challenges state agencies have faced in managing deer numbers over the past 10 to 20 years. As deer-restoration programs that began in the 1930s and 1940s finally came to full fruition, agencies faced a different challenge – how to balance deer populations that provide excellent hunting without also causing unacceptable levels of human-deer conflict.

Reversing the decades-long emphasis on protecting female deer from harvest, biologists increasingly urged hunters to shoot does. This was aimed at shifting the sex ratio of deer herds from doe-heavy to a 50:50 mix of bucks and does. The goal was to reduce deer population growth in some areas, hold deer numbers steady in others and reduce deer numbers in areas that already were significantly above deer population targets.

“Over the course of about 15 years, we were able to apply the brakes to deer population growth,” says Sumners. “Then came a perfect storm of conditions we had no way of anticipating.”

Those unanticipated conditions were driven by a severe drought that began in 2012 and carried over into 2013. It caused the worst outbreak of hemorrhagic diseases – blue tongue and epizootic hemorrhagic disease, collectively referred to as HD – in recorded history. Those losses were deepened when the drought caused the smallest acorn crop since the department started keeping records in 1960. The lack of acorns forced deer to move more during the 2012 deer season, making it easier for hunters to find them and contributing to the second-largest deer harvest in Missouri history.

Hunter behavior changes slowly, so they continue to shoot the same number of deer they have in recent years. Consequently, the harvests in the first and second years after a HD die-off remain relatively stable. By the time hunters adjust their harvest behavior, a significant loss has accumulated.

Sumners says the Conservation Department’s Regulations Committee will consider these factors, along with the many comments they have received from hunters, when drafting recommendations to the Conservation Commission regarding 2014-2015 deer-hunting regulations. The Commission approved deer season dates for the 2014-2015 season to provide hunters adequate notice, but season regulations may still be adjusted by the Conservation Commission. He says the remedy for the current dip in deer numbers is not as simple as it might seem at first glance.

“Missouri’s deer population isn’t evenly spread across the state or a county,” he says. “Blanket, one-size-fits-all answers aren’t necessarily the right solutions. But we want people to know that we are hearing their concerns and are committed to identifying ways to find the right balance.”

Sumners says it is important to view the current situation from a broad historical perspective. It took 50 years of cooperation between the Conservation Department, landowners, and hunters to reach the point where Missouri’s annual deer harvest topped 200,000 in 1995. It took another 10 years to achieve the balance of doe and buck harvest needed to stabilize deer numbers in parts of Missouri where deer had grown too numerous. Maintaining that stability in the face of weather extremes, disease outbreaks and annual harvest variations is a balancing act. Sumners also says it is important to keep this years’ harvest in perspective.

“The average deer harvests of approximately 290,000 over the past 10 years have given us a lopsided view of what the annual harvest should be,” he says. “We’ve seen dips and bumps in total harvest before and expect the ebb and flow will continue in the future. We are committed to continuing the science-informed management that has enabled successful management of a deer resource that supports 12,000 Missouri jobs and pumps $1 billion into our economy annually.”

The Department evaluates season information each year and last year reduced unlimited antlerless permits in some counties. The management of white-tailed deer has always been both a biologically and socially complex issue, but management today is more challenging due to interrelated factors such as land use, ownership, hunter density, and human population levels. Today’s research efforts allow the agency to forecast population changes and evaluate the impact of various regulation options on the deer population. Research, management, and public input will help the Department make more informed management decisions.

The Conservation Department plans to hold public meetings around the state this summer to gather input from hunters, wildlife watchers and others about the future of deer management in Missouri. Public input has always been and will continue to be an important part of the future of deer management.

-Jim Low-